The Cy Coleman celebration “The Best Is Yet to Come” might as well be titled “Witchcraft” (another of his early hits), so persuasive is the case made for the tunesmith’s devilish alchemy in melding pop, jazz and parody into ravishing song. The Rubicon Theater Company world premiere, reportedly eyeing a Gotham transfer, is beautifully sung with talent to spare, although the stagecraft from helmer David Zippel (lyricist of Coleman’s “City of Angels”) as yet lags behind the musicianship.
The revue follows the “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” playbook in ransacking a composer’s catalog to evoke his world and worldview. As Richard Maltby Jr. showed off Fats Waller’s raffish prewar Harlem, Zippel gives us Gotham cafe society in its 1940s and ’50s salad days. The jazz demimonde in which Coleman’s piano artistry found pre- and post-Broadway fame is evoked in all its smoky, sensual, brandy-snifter glory by Billy Stritch’s superb cool at the ivories (he even resembles Coleman), amid Douglas Schmidt’s extravagantly art deco bandstand and William Ivey Long’s sharply tailored suits and gowns.
Also, as in the Waller tribute, the Coleman songs are linked by theme (lovers who self-destruct; faithless Johnnies; the allure of cash) and wrapped within briefly established situations suggested by the words. Coleman may have sampled lyricist-collaborators the way others switch cologne, but he sure got the best: Carolyn Leigh, Dorothy Fields and Zippel himself all wrote precisely and wittily for character, which should make for clear and precise song settings but doesn’t yet, at least in this stage of the tuner’s development.
The choices are often baffling (a cutesy-poo near-S&M romp through “The Measure of Love”) or confusing: Two gals attack a wolf for “What You Don’t Know About Women,” but the behavior prompting their broadside occurred three songs earlier. All the mini-scenes, which need more than Lorin Latarro’s perfunctory choreography, warrant sharper playing and conviction to match the solo numbers, lovingly wrought heartbreakers like Julia Murney’s “Come Summer” and Sally Mayes’ “With Every Breath I Take.”
Meanwhile the prodigious, life-affirming Lillias White owns the house, from selling the Walleresque “Don’t Ask a Lady” to turning “Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like” (originally sung in “Will Rogers Follies”) into a sultry meet ‘n’ greet with Stritch’s terrific octet. Few had a chance to catch White’s Tony-winning turn in “The Life”; that show’s comic paean to a prostitute’s job description “The Oldest Profession” brought the first night crowd to its feet.
Against these dynamic divas — reflecting the composer’s evident penchant for strong dames while throwing the fellas scraps — pixieish Jason Graae and stolid David Burnham seem singularly overmatched, though Graae does nicely by “Witchcraft,” and Burnham takes command with the anthemic “I’d Give the World,” from a Napoleon musical Zippel and Coleman were writing at the time of the latter’s death in 2004.
The finale “It Started With a Dream,” from another abortive project with Zippel, “Pamela’s First Musical,” is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, suggesting Coleman finally found the wordsmith he’d always sought, albeit too late to fully mine their synergy. Familiar numbers from “Seesaw” and “Sweet Charity” are trotted out for an encore, but given the hints we get of his final composing years, the best was clearly yet to come for Cy Coleman.